Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Contemporary Mormonism : Latter-day Saints in modern America

The Intellectual Activities Of Recent Years
Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

Richard Poll dramatized the difference between liberal and conservative believers in his essay "What the Church Means to People Like Me." Poll described two familiar types of Mormons using Book of Mormon images. "Iron Rod" Mormons-an image from a dream of Lehi-are admonished to find their way through the murk of life by strict obedience to the commandments. Holding on to the iron rod is not easy, but every step is clearly defined. The "mind and will of the Lord" may be obtained on any question with guidance from the Scriptures, modern prophets, and the Holy Ghost. "Liahona" Mormons, on the other hand, who are named for the compass that worked on faith and guided Lehi's family through the wilderness, feel their way along with occasional divine help. Although Liahonas lack full knowledge and certitude, they see enough to function with purpose. Poll thought that basic temperament divided the camps. Iron Rodders see a questioning attitude as imperfect faith; Liahonas feel that people without questions have closed minds. Iron Rodders see the Lord involved in all details of life; the Liahonas are more apt to see people, even the Lord's prophets, struggling alone at times, employing the Godgiven gift of agency as they can. Both Iron Rodders and Liahonas, Poll concludes, are useful to the Church's work.

Poll noted that following the brethren is a practical, Iron Rod idea. Authoritarianism is pragmatic, and the institutional emphasis on compliance tends to put Iron Rodders in presiding positions. But he, a Liahona, saw in the Church an impressive ability to accommodate changing realities. Church members, having forgotten their past or never having known it, learn a very selective, idealized history. "To the extent that the oracles from the past are perceived as unchanging, the processes of change-of continuous revelation-within the church today are likely to be resisted, overlooked, or rationalized." Poll thought it risky and counterproductive to substitute myth for historical truth. The selective embellishing, revising, and forgetting of aspects left the members vulnerable. He believed efforts to deny dissonance stemmed not from doctrine but from the personal characteristics of leaders and followers.

Most believing intellectual Mormons are probably Liahonas. One of these, a university professor, shares Poll's unwillingness to commit to myth. "Where does [my scientific training] leave me? The same as I am with respect to a lot of things, with an open mind. So many people stand up in church and say, 'I know.' There are very few things in this life I know for sure. In science you never assume you have the final word on anything. Later information may not undo it, but it will reinterpret and extend it further." He spoke to the benefits of the Church from observation. "My testimony is that following these teachings has proven to be beneficial. I have seen humble people grow to giants by participating in the church." The Iron Rod mentality has welcomed the standardization of materials. By submitting all Church publications to review by a central committee, doctrine and history have been homogenized, simplified, and regularized. Since the 1970s, committees have established consistency in Church practice and teaching. To further regularize teaching, Church magazines published by the semi-independent Church auxiliaries such as the women's Relief Society were discontinued, not because of objectionable content, but because they represented their own organizations. The magazines were succeeded by "correlated" periodicals for adults, young people, and children. After the 1960s, lesson manuals were assigned to central lessonwriting committees to assure consistency and orthodoxy.

Although correlation tended to contain inquiry, in 1972, intellectual life expanded as never before. Leonard J. Arrington, raised a potato farmer in Idaho who later studied economics and history at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and taught at Utah State University in Logan, was named Church Historian, the first (and only) professional historian to hold the office. A strong leader and bridge-builder, Arrington had organized the Mormon History Association in 1965, providing LDS historians with a forum and opportunity for dialogue. Arrington had earlier gained access to the Church archives, open to few, to work on the dissertation that became his respected book Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900. In this rational telling of the LDS story, Arrington depicted Brigham Young as the master planner of a desert economy.

Because of the historical department's productivity, the issues of definition, control, and selective inclusion rose early. As Arrington writes in his memoir, some leaders were uncomfortable with the human details included in published letters from Brigham Young to his sons. When a new history, Story of the Latter-day Saints, by staffers James Allen and Glen Leonard was published in 1976, one or two members of the Quorum of the Twelve objected to the volume's "absence of inspiration." Ezra Taft Benson, then president of the Twelve, criticized LDS historians for humanizing leaders and for underplaying "revelation and God's intervention in significant events." Arrington's department received a long memo asserting that Story of the Latter-day Saints was a secular history lacking sufficient spiritual aspects and citing too many anti-Mormon books. All historical publications, the critique said, should be routed through the Correlation Committee to be corrected for fact, tone, and impact. Arrington concluded that the leaders wanted pages filled with scriptural allusions, nothing controversial.

The Church authorities were faced with a dilemma. They were bombarded with questions from members and media about historical materials they had no time to read, yet the studies, written by Historical Department staffers and carrying the official or semi-official authority of the Church, were unsatisfactory. To ease the tension, Arrington and his associates were moved to Brigham Young University in 1980 and renamed the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History. By then Arrington's staff had written hundreds of articles and about thirty books and long manuscripts. Arrington was released as Church Historian in 1982 and replaced by a General Authority.

The difficulties of the Leonard Arrington era pointed out the serious intellectual problem: Who speaks for the Church? Leaders are uneasy when researchers apply their tools to the hallowed old stories. Shouldn't the stories just be accepted? Shouldn't the tone continue worshipful? Shouldn't the Mormon story be shielded from embarrassing details? This problem climaxed with Arrington's plan to produce a sixteen-volume history for the Church's 150th anniversary in 1980. Sixteen faithful scholars were engaged and set to work. The plan was moving along well, with contracts signed, research progressing, and even some volumes completed before leaders, deciding that the Church could not be represented by these scholars, cancelled the series. Several of the books were published but not under official auspices. The ultimate conclusion was that the leaders, not the scholars, speak for the Church, and writings by historians must be considered as independent work.